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The words feminism and equality are a hot topic in the society of today. The word feminism has gained an ugly connotation and has even spurred a second movement called meninism. Basically, meninism is the response of ignorant misogynists to a valid fault in our society as a whole. Women are still oppressed each and every day, some worse than others, but we are shocked at the blatant inequality evident in medieval literature yet we do not even bat an eye when an actress is asked about her dress instead of her career. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, misogyny plays a large role and nearly becomes a character all its own. The woman-oppressing culture of that time period may seem dead, but be assured that it is alive and well today, simply in different form.
The women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appear to be treated with respect under the code of chivalry yet these knights do not have a genuine respect for the women as human beings but as the property of another man. In today’s society the parallel of this is when a woman has to tell a man she has a boyfriend to deny his advances, because men respect other men more than a woman’s right to her own decisions. The same is true for the bedroom scenes with Sir Gawain and Lady Bertilak. Gawain only denies her advances on the principle of her belonging to Bertilak. Gawain further dehumanizes Lady Berilak by comparing her to Guinivere, who is portrayed as nothing more than a trophy for Arthur to flaunt. He sees them both as objects to be admired and not actual people.
Women have been blamed for the faults of man since the beginning of the human race all the way back to Adam and Eve. Everyone likes to heap all of the blame onto Eve, yet no one recognizes that she was deceived before she persuaded Adam to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sir Gawain has a lengthy outburst condemning women and blaming them for the downfall of not only himself, but also of many powerful, biblical characters.
“But if a dullard should dote, deem it no wonder,
And through the wiles of a woman be wooed into sorrow,
For so was Adam by one, when the world began,
And Solomon by many more, and Samson the mighty—
Delilah was his doom, and David thereafter
Was beguiled by Bathsheba, and bore much distress” (Greenblatt and Abrams)
He starts out strong with the example of Adam and Eve. The snake deceived Eve just like Morgan Le Fay was pulling the puppet strings of Lady Bertilak. These women then went on to deceive their respective men so they were not completely faultless, yet people seem to forget that the men share an equal part of the blame. Sir Gawain then goes on to compare himself to Solomon and Sampson. This is where his argument really fractures and we see that his outburst is caused by rage and injured pride, not any sort of logical injustice committed against him. Sampson is a poor example of innocence because he knew all along that he could not trust Delilah because she would do what she thought was right for her nation, yet somehow over time she has been diminished to a spiteful woman who ruined Sampson’s life for no reason. Sir Gawain then compares himself to David. This is absurd because David was almost completely responsible for his own downfall. He saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof and he pursued her and brought her to his home to have sex with her and a child was conceived. As if that was not bad enough, David then sent her husband, who had been a loyal subject to David, to the front lines of battle in hopes that he would be killed. People blame Bathsheba for giving in to her lustful temptations, but I think David was her downfall, not the other way around. Women are used as scapegoats to the point that they have even started to accept full responsibility for offences they either did not commit or share only a fraction of the blame. Women are blamed for rape because they were intoxicated or were dressed a certain way. It is absolutely insane that in this day and age we are still pointing the finger at the victim.
“And one and all fell prey
To women they had used;
If I be led astry,
Methinks I may be excused.” (Greenblatt and Abrams)
At the end of his rant Gawain sweeps all of the blame off of himself and onto the women in his life once again. He literally says he should be absolved of all blame for his actions because he was led astray. He accepts zero responsibility for the wrongs he has committed against the women he used.
“Some feminist literary critics indict Sir Gawain on the grounds that he blames women for men’s downfalls. More specifically, they argue that by blaming Lady Bertilak for his shortcomings he deflects any criticism away from himself and retains some of his honor. Further, they argue that Sir Gawain’s alleged antifeminist rant is just one representation of the misogynistic overtones which pervade Middle English literature, particularly the Arthurian romance genre.” (Blair)
Sir Gawain does not own up to his faults because he wants to save his honor and his reputation. In today’s society we often hear that rapists or abusive partners really are good people and they were just provoked in some way by the victim. With this statement they turn the victim into the attacker and justify the attack. Catherine Batt explores the extent of Gawain’s misogyny.
“Gawain imposes an unsatisfactory rhetorical patterning on experience, in order to make it intelligible in already-known terms’ and that he ‘does not later show regret for his illogical calumny of women, because its expression exists as a discrete encoding of received wisdom.” (Batt)
Catherine Batt is speaking about how Gawain justifies his actions by blaming others, namely, women, yet he refuses to see the fault in his own logic. This brings to mind young men that were defended and shielded from blame for raping a girl just because she was under the influence. Their actions were justified through faulty logic and because they were excused of their wrongdoings, the entirety of the blame falls on the victim. When we examine these situations side by side we see that men have been victim blaming for centuries. It was more obvious in the medieval time period because women were still thought of as property and were defined only by association, or more accurately, ownership of a man, whether it be father, older brother, or husband. While women have more rights and are generally treated better today, there are still traces of misogyny in our society like a stain that never fully washes out no matter how hard you scrub and how much you bleach.
In conclusion, Sir Gawain did have a misogynistic mind set but we should not be too harsh because misogyny is a product of society. We should take Sir Gawain as an example of a product of a faulty society and we should work to erase prejudices and better our society as a whole. We still have inequality and injustice against many groups of people, not just women, and we should fight to break down these barriers and provide not only equal opportunity and pay, but also equal respect.
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